It should have been raining. Sleet should have stung my eyes and chilled my bones. Instead the sun shone warm and the air was filled with the smell of blossoms and fresh grass. Birds sang and a light breeze ruffled the new leaves.
It was all wrong. But then, everything about this place is wrong.
I’m talking about the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
All of the terrible things you’ve heard about this place are true. The sheer size of it, the detailed records of atrocities, the despair that clings to the buildings and whispers through the dark hallways.
I’d steeled myself for the rooms full of possessions, eyeglasses and baby clothes – all taken from executed Jews. But I was horrified to see dormitories and barracks lined with straw instead of mattresses. Or to look at the refrigerator-sized brick torture chambers that four prisoners were forced to stand in until they died. Or the large crematorium #1, which simply wasn’t big enough to meet the execution demands of the camp. Five more were built over two years.
Over one million men, women and children treated worse than animals. Killed cruelly, ruthlessly, with a terrifying bureaucratic efficiency.
I don’t know what one can say about the Holocaust that doesn’t sound trivial or cliched. The enormity of it defies description.
But as I trudged through the camps – my footsteps heavy with grief and yet hurrying at the same time – I thought about the power of stories. The terrible story told by the Nazis that allowed thousands of soldiers – most of whom loved their children, were good neighbors and honest men – to commit such despicable acts over and over again. The stories the doomed prisoners told themselves, hoping for a better life, a new start just beyond this terrible circumstance that allowed them to walk docilely to their death.
Stories founded on lies that allowed this evil to not only survive but flourish for nearly five years.
Walking a long hallway full of mugshot-like portraits of prisoners sent to the work camps, I thought about all the stories we couldn’t know. Their eyes beseeched the photographer through the lens, as if looking for a trace of hope that their story wasn’t about to take a devastating turn for the worse. All we know of their story is the date they entered the camp, and the day they died… Usually just a few short weeks later.
So perhaps we need to go to these places to bring dry history alive. To bear witness to our weaknesses and heroics. To acknowledge the sheer dumb luck we enjoy to be born in one time period instead of another. To stand along with the silent trees and breathe a prayer for forgiveness to the sky.
(I only took one picture, outside the gates, watching the light play on the walkway)